Something for World Book Day

I had cause today to look at a couple of old books on my shelves, and this reminded me that the oldest book on my shelves that I have read probably dates back to 1976. I thought it might be fun to check through all my shelves, and my database of books I have read*, to find out what still sits on my shelves in the edition I read at that time.

I then decided it might be… a lark? an education? nostalgic? to reread all such books. And to keep this topical and relevant, I decided to read only the books I still own that I owned and read before the end of 1977, forty years ago this year.

So, here they are, the foxed, cocked, water-stained and creased books, smelling of mould and cigarette smoke, that I shall be re-reading.

Under Milk Wood — I began an O-level in English Literature at evening classes with my friend and co-author John in 1975 (while he was also doing an A-level!). Dylan Thomas’s lovely radio play was first on the syllabus. But we both had to drop out of the course as his A-levels and my OND took up more time. I mean, come on man, we had skywatches and band practices to attend as well, you know!

The Trial – I remember finding Franz Kafka’s novel a tough old read back in ’76. Partly down to the translation, I think, and partly down to the tiny text. It might be better now I’m older and wiser; however, I also fear it might not.

Darkness at Noon — I bought this because a friend had raved on about something else Arthur Koestler had written. It is, I recall, gripping, and I read it in a couple of days — although during the course of the revolution described in the book, people switched sides so often that I remember being confused about who was on what side. But that was partly the point, I believe.

The Drought — An early entry in J G Ballard’s disaster cycle, it’s short but elliptical, and I remember it being slightly dry (geddit?) and distant, yet with odd and arresting images.

Operation Trojan Horse — This is, thankfully, the only UFO book. John Keel’s slightly nutty entry in this list will at least be entertaining.

Total Man — A very long exposition by Stan Gooch on the two-sided nature of man, with his A and B personality types, and how these need to be integrated to become… yes, Total Man! I’d like to think that Gooch was using “man” in the old-fashioned sense of mankind, but fear this actually was only about men. Probably the longest and heaviest book I’ll be re-reading. (This turned up for 50p in a sale in W H Smiths. Ah, those were the days.)

Stranger in a Strange Land — Heinlein’s sci-fi epic might out-page Total Man, but one hopes it will be somewhat lighter than Gooch’s opus. I have a horrible feeling, though, that Stranger… is a book best read by 17-year-olds, but we’ll see.

The Private Future — Woolworths used to have a bargain bin of remainders, and very odd things used to turn up in it. This, I seem to recall, was one of them, a short-ish work of popular sociology/cultural studies that envisaged a future in which the world became more private because of electronic media. The author, Martin Pawley meant private in the sense of social physicality and proximity rather than the kind of connections or sociability we might maintain through media now. And yet, given trends such as the decline of the pub, Pawley might have been onto something. This one will be interesting to revisit.

There are three further books that should perhaps be given consideration. It’s possible that Orwell’s 1984 should be on this list, but my copy has my brother’s name in it. And although he did like 1984 it’s difficult to imagine him paying good money for a mere book when he was 15. So, part of me thinks he might have been simply fulfilling his role as an annoying younger brother, and thought it hilarious to put his name in my book. However, neither of us is going to remember the course of events forty years ago with any certainty, so I’ve left it off the list.

Also on the list should be two UFO books, The Warminster Mystery and Warnings From Flying Friends, which relate the ufological events that occurred in Warminster in the 1960s. However, in the course of writing In Alien Heat, my own critical and historical examination of that mystery, I read both books more times than any human should. I have no desire to read them again.

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* Yes, I’m one of those sad people who has a database of books he’s read!

Yes, it’s Number One, it’s Top of the Pops!

And number 1 is… Michael Moorcock!

What are you talking about Steve?, I hear you ask.

Well, a couple of years after I started to read a lot, I began to record the books I’d read; first on paper, then in databases. Being a man of a certain age, this means I have records going back to the 1970s. Being also OCD enough to have copied my database of books to Goodreads, I can now easily see that the author I have read most is Michael Moorcock. Now, in the course of nearly 40 years, some of these books I have read more than once, and those that have had repeated readings will most likely be my favourites. Only my database can reveal which books have had multiple readings… However, I know I was a big fan of 1970s British New Wave Science Fiction, so I have read and reread the Jerry Cornelius books — A Cure for CancerThe Final Programme, and The English Assassin. Some of the 31 books in my Goodreads list for Moorcock are in fact collections for which he was editor, such as the various New Worlds anthologies; without these collections, Moorcock might have been under pressure from the author at position two in the charts…

In second place is Ruth Rendell. Now, as I only discovered Rendell, and her alter ego, Barbara Vine, in the late 1980s, I can easily recall those books of hers I have read multiple times. So, I recommend highly Vine’s A Fatal Inversion, which I have read about six times, King Solomon’s CarpetThe Brimstone Wedding; and Rendell’s Going WrongThe Crocodile Bird, and Talking to Strange Men. I have never been a fan of police procedurals, so the Wexford books do not interest me.

At number three in the chart is Frank Herbert. I read Dune in my teens and was enamoured by it. The fact that I have read all the canonical Dune books accounts, of course, for about a third of the total for Herbert. There are other books by Herbert that I have read more than once — Under Pressure* and Destination Void — but it is, in general, the Dune books to which I return. One of my friends once said Herbert’s books were full of half-arsed so-called philosophical ramblings. This perhaps accounts for the fourth entry in my chart.

In with an invocation and a silver bullet at number four is Colin Wilson, purveyor of much half-arsed nonsense and profligate philosophical posturing. I read and re-read The Occult when I was a young adult, and was almost tempted to become the next Cagliostro, or Count de St. Germain. I also read The Outsider and other of his “philosophical” works. Why Wilson attracts me, I think, is that he is an easy read; so he is often a good place to start with a topic, even if he is often wrong or muddled about something. It is his novels, however, such as The Glass CageThe Schoolgirl Murder Case, and Ritual in the Dark, that are I think under-rated. Crime thrillers set in the 1960s with more of that half-arsed philosophical rambling, they are well-written and a better vehicle for his ideas.

I could say more, but for the moment, I’ll stop here and simply note there are an awful lot of 70s sci-fi authors in this list…

1     Michael Moorcock  31
2     Ruth Rendell  23
3     Frank Herbert  19
4     Colin Wilson  18
5     Philip K. Dick  15
6     D.H. Lawrence  13
7     Henry Miller  12
8     J.G. Ballard  11
9     Barbara Vine  10
9     Aldous Huxley  10
11    Roger Zelazny  9
11    Isaac Asimov  9
13    Robert A. Heinlein  7
13    Keith Roberts  7
13    Iain M. Banks  7
16    George Orwell  6
16     William Gibson  6
16     John Fowles  6
16     Hermann Hesse  6
16    Jacques F. Vallée  6

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* Also known as Dragon in the Sea in the UK, and 21st Century Sub